Lucas: Rays have team, and individual, points to prove

By Pete Fairbairn, 13.10.16

It’s business time! Eight teams started out in the Buildcorp NRC this season, and now just four remain as we embark upon elimination, semi-final action.

The Sydney Rays will host the second Semi-Final at Pittwater Rugby Park on Sunday, having lost just one of their seven regular season fixtures, and ahead of their clash with the Perth Spirit we asked one of their players to blog about their season so far and the task ahead.

Captain and star scrumhalf Matt Lucas has been an ever-present for the Rays in 2016, playing every game for the Club who he first represented in 2014’s inaugural Buildcorp NRC. He missed 2015 as he ventured across to Italy to experience European Rugby with Calvisano, but after returning to the Waratahs this year and playing every game he’s followed that with a huge NRC.

Here, he writes exclusively for the RUPA website on what his side have used for inspiration in 2016, the opportunity that the NRC provides for young players, and the successful transition teammate Con Foley has made to back to fifteen-a-side Rugby.

Matt Lucas - In His Own Words, Semi Finals:

There is no hiding the fact that as a team, we struggled in the first two years of the competition and were disappointed that we didn’t win more matches and qualify for finals. Heading into this season, we sat down as a group nice and early and put some plans in place which we hoped would translate into a successful campaign.

From the get-go, we knew that we couldn’t waste any time as it’s such a short competition; it’s a sprint, not a marathon, and we were really conscious of getting off to a good start. The aim right from the outset was to win the NRC this year, and we spent a lot of time working out the different processes and ideals we wanted to identify ourselves by, and wanted other people to associate if they thought of us. We really want to bring those ideals to life.

They’re not something that we really talk about too much outside of the group, because they represent what we’ve come up with as a group behind closed doors, but we are really striving to act upon them and bring them to life.

We realised from the start that on paper we weren’t a star-studded outfit, and we didn’t have as many contracted players in our squad as some of the others, but we knew that a point of difference is that we have such a keen group. There’s definitely a number of guys in our team, both professionally contracted and uncontracted, who headed into their campaign with massive points to prove.

We have lots of contracted guys determined to be recognised as better players than what they were this year, as they look to be more heavily involved in Super Rugby in 2017, and then there’s a lot of guys who are yet to earn their first Super Rugby deals.

To be honest, those non-contracted players have been the heart and soul of this group. A lot of them have come into the campaign on the back of tasting success by winning the Shute Shield at Norths and they’ve brought our squad to life; they just want to show the Rugby world what they are capable of achieving.

Someone else who has been a real standout is Con Foley, who’s been starting at 13 for the Rays. Con has come across from the Australian Men’s Rugby Sevens program after playing a key role at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and anybody who has watched our last three games will recognise the impact he has had.

He hasn’t needed any transition period at all; we were all expecting him to take a while to switch back over, but he has hit the ground running and he is turning a lot of heads with the way he’s been playing. Con’s been a real standout, particularly in our away wins in Brisbane and Melbourne, and he was voted our Man of the Match against the Rising last weekend.

The conditions in Melbourne last week were unbelievable, with some of the strongest winds I have ever seen, and we were really pleased to hang on for the win against a fellow finalist. One of the many positives that we took out of the game was our staunchness in defence to hold on to the lead in the closing stages, because as those conditions turned a lot of us, including myself, were clearly struggling to play with the ball and we couldn’t really exit from our own half. As a side we gritted our teeth and did the job defensively, and we took so much out of that defensive commitment.

The Rising are a very good team and they are definitely capable of beating NSW Country on Saturday in Newcastle. Any side can beat any other in this competition on their day, and they’ll likely get a few Wallaby troops back as well, so the Eagles will know that they have to produce their best to knock off Melbourne. The same goes for us against Perth; getting to the Semi Finals means nothing if you don’t turn up and win to extend the season another week.

We played Perth Spirit in Round Two at North Sydney Oval on a Friday night and while we got the win that time, it was a pretty wet night which somewhat restricted both sides in terms of what we could do. You hope and expect sides to play their best footy come finals time, so we are expecting a far better Spirit side this time around. That’s not just in terms of personnel either, where they’ve now got a few guys back who weren’t playing in their earlier games, but also the type of footy they play. We’re expecting a red-hot Perth Spirit side on Sunday.

If you ask any of his teammates or opponents throughout Australia, they’ll say Jonno Lance is a key player for them. He was the NRC Player of the Year in 2015 and has been great again for them this year, and for the Force in Super Rugby before he got injured.

He’s a key figure in their success and we understand that shutting him down might help us get the win, but that being said we need to focus on what we can control rather than focusing our energy too much on what they bring to the table. We need to stick with our processes and what’s brought us to the Semi Finals, but we are under no illusion regarding what he brings to their side.

The full depth of our squad has been tested throughout the course of the season and this week is no different, after a few knocks were sustained last week. We’ve lost Michael Wells, who has been extremely consistent and one of our best forwards all year, but hopefully that is basically the extent of it. We knew from the start that we would need a full squad producing and training, so that if we did lose a couple there’s not too much change in our style or quality of play, and the way we have responded to hose setbacks has been pleasing.

I think that the NRC is definitely better than ever in 2016, and I think it is such an important competition to allow Australian Rugby players to continue their development. It allows guys who have Wallabies aspirations to really show their mettle, and it gives Super Rugby players the chance show their ability if they haven’t been getting heaps of minutes during that season.

My brother Ben, who won a Super Rugby title with the Reds and is now playing in Japan after a stint in France, hasn’t yet had the chance to play in the NRC. He did play in the original ARC back in 2008, and he really benefitted from that as he was right at the start of his professional career. As he gained so much experience at a Super Rugby level in the years after the ARC, racking up over 70 Super Rugby caps, having a competition such as the NRC would have allowed him to further push his case as he was on the fringe of being selected for higher honours. All Rugby players would rather be playing in another competition after Super Rugby than just training for the next few months.

For the up and coming players, like my youngest brother Isaac who is currently on tour with the Australian Schoolboys side in New Zealand, they have their eye on getting into NRC squads next year and testing themselves to get a gauge of where they’re at. Some of the younger players like Irae Simone have shown this year that age doesn’t matter if you’re good enough; he’s been phenomenal, and that evidence is one of the most positive aspects of the NRC in general.

The NRC has such importance in bridging the gap between Super Rugby and Club Rugby, and it gives guys a taste against the big boys. We’ve seen some Wallaby forwards playing this year, like Ben McCalman, Rob Simmons and Scott Fardy, and they show young blokes where they currently stand and give them an opportunity to learn a lot. For the young blokes at Queensland Country, playing alongside Brad Thorn would have been a dream come true, and they get to learn a bit of him and see how he functions.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed running around at this level in 2016 for the Rays, and I’ll be doing everything in my power to make sure that we are backing up again in the Final next week.

2016 Buildcorp NRC, Semi Finals (all times AEDT):
- NSW Country Eagles vs. Melbourne Rising, 3:00pm Saturday October 15th, No.2 Sportsground, Newcastle (LIVE on FOX Sports)
- Sydney Rays vs. Perth Spirit, 3:00pm, Sunday October 16th, Pittwater Rugby Park, Sydney (LIVE on FOX Sports)

Sydney Rays, 2016 results:
Round 1: Sydney Rays 50 def. Western Sydney Rams 30
Round 2: Sydney Rays 28 def. Perth Spirit 8
Round 3: Queensland Country 22 def. by Sydney Rays 30
Round 4: Sydney Rays 16 def. by NSW Country 36
Round 5: Brisbane City 32 def. Sydney Rays 38
Round 6: Sydney Rays 58 def. UC Vikings 14
Round 7: Melbourne Rising 32 def. by Sydney Rays 38

Pete Fairbairn
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